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Feminism is generally seen as a good thing. It means something or other about achieving equality of the sexes; of treating people of different sexes the same or as well as each other.

Racism is generally seen as a bad thing. It means something or other about not achieving equality between people of different races; of treating people of different races differently and badly.

Why is there this difference between -isms? Where did it come from?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Mari-Lou A, FumbleFingers, Kristina Lopez, choster, Mitch Dec 20 '13 at 20:51

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • Depending on who you're talking to, radicalism, for example, may have positive, neutral, or negative associations. – FumbleFingers Dec 20 '13 at 18:20
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    Altruism was only conceived of as bad by W. C. Fields, I believe. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 20 '13 at 19:05
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    Learned long ago "prism" is the most beautiful -ism. – chux Dec 21 '13 at 3:28
  • '-ism' doesn't mean 'a bad thing about ...'. It means 'a thing about ...'. The difference in connotation comes from the subject an usage. 'Racism' is about treating people badly because of race. 'Feminism' is about giving more rights to women. The suffix isn't good or bad, it's the entire concept. Don't get stuck on the suffix. – Mitch Dec 21 '13 at 14:55
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Oxford defines the suffix -ism as

  1. denoting an action or its result: baptism exorcism

    denoting a state or quality: barbarism

  2. denoting a system, principle, or ideological movement: Anglicanism feminism hedonism

    denoting a basis for prejudice or discrimination: racism

  3. denoting a peculiarity in language: colloquialism Canadianism
  4. denoting a pathological condition: alcoholism

There is no inherent good or bad about these uses (except possibly the disease definition).

The source, according to ODO is

from French -isme, via Latin from Greek -ismos, -isma

  • So definition 2 is contradictory? Because SPONKISM could be discrimination against sponks, or belonging to the SPONK movement? There's no way to guess if FATISM is promoting fat acceptance or is fat discrimination without looking up a definition of fatism? – DanBeale Dec 20 '13 at 18:20
  • @DanBeale: You are correct. There isn't an easy way to determine which is accurate without looking it up (or using context.) – MrHen Dec 20 '13 at 18:29
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There isn't anything about the -ism suffix that is inherently ethical or unethical. The moral aspect relates to the other side of the word. In terms of "feminism"; the immoral variant would be "sexism".

But most -isms are just classifications of people or ways of thought. Something like "communism" or "socialism" isn't inherently good or bad. It's just a political affiliation.

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